Twitter and Facebook in censorship row
Should social media sites decide what news we read? Some argue that they play a key role in suppressing fake news – but others fear giving them too much power over the information we access.
It all started with an email: one businessman inviting another for coffee in Washington DC. Yet within minutes of its publication by the New York Post on Wednesday, it was at the centre of a political storm.
What makes it explosive is a casual phrase at the beginning: “thank you for inviting me to DC and giving [me] an opportunity to meet your father”.
The email is from Vadym Pozharskyi and it is addressed to Hunter Biden. Critics allege that while Joe Biden was vice-president, Hunter used his father’s influence to make deals in Ukraine – a form of corruption.
Biden’s campaign has stated that the meeting in question never took place, and the candidate’s defenders have suggested that the email may be fabricated.
But the response of the social media giants is the most controversial aspect. After the article appeared, Facebook and Twitter immediately limited its circulation. Twitter banned users from tweeting the link and locked the New York Post’s account for almost 24 hours.
This quick response contrasts with a notably sluggish reaction on other misinformation.
Social media sites have enormous influence over the news we consume: in 2018, a survey found that 43% of Americans get their news from Facebook, and 12% from Twitter.
Should they decide what we read?
Yes, say some. They argue that Twitter and Facebook play a vital role in ensuring that people are not misinformed. If they do not take action against untrue stories, then fake news will spread online and influence people’s votes.
No, say others. Twitter has no right to decide that some information is “bad for” readers. Unlike newspapers, social media giants have monopoly power: if people are unhappy with one newspaper they can start reading another. There are no alternative social media sites that have any clout.
- Is it right for some people to decide what others are allowed to know?
- Design the front page of your own newspaper. Give it a name, then decide where your images and text should go.
Some People Say...
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”Virginia Woolf, (1882–1941), English author
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Most people agree that censorship, whether private or public, tends to crush artistic and individual creativity. In his famous essay On Liberty, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that when speech and expression are restricted, the mind also becomes less free and original. He claimed that suppressing ideas, even mostly false ones, always kills truth.
- What do we not know?
- There is some debate over how free speech is actually to be practised. Even Mill recognised that people must be prevented from saying things that would substantially harm the public. Some have claimed that libel cases are often an attack on free speech, but others insist that there must be accountability for the things that people say – even if they are not prevented from saying them. Some suggest that free speech is impossible because every society always elevates some opinions over others.
- New York Post
- One of the USA’s oldest newspapers, it was created in 1801 by Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. For most of the twentieth century it was a centre-left outlet, but after it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1976, it turned into a conservative tabloid.
- Vadym Pozharskyi
- A prominent Ukrainian businessman
- Hunter Biden
- The younger son of Democratic candidate Joe Biden, who served as vice-president during the Obama administration.
- The use of political power for individual gain. It is regarded as a breach of trust between the people and their representatives, and widespread corruption usually undermines the legitimacy of a state.
- Social media platforms have been used to spread an array of conspiracies, notably over the source of Covid-19, with little interference.